Editor’s note: This Q&A was updated on June 8, 2023, to revise the boilerplate language.
In 2018, after Hurricane Florence hit South Carolina—pummeling the state with an estimated $600 million in damage—Governor Henry McMaster told flood consultants to follow Terri Straka’s lead. Many of Terri’s neighbors also followed her lead, taking a buyout that moved them out of harm’s way to avoid future flooding. Known in her community of Rosewood Estates, a blue-collar section of Socastee, just outside Myrtle Beach, as “Terri Jean the Rosewood Queen,” Straka has been advocating on her neighbors’ behalf and exposing the emotional struggles that come with the experience of flooding since the community first flooded in 2015.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How have the impacts and frequency of flooding changed over time in Rosewood Estates?
A: Well, the flooding started in 2015, and then with each storm it got worse; 2016 was Hurricane Matthew, which was extremely bad. And then 2018 was Hurricane Florence, which was double the impact of Matthew. At that point, FEMA came to redo the flood maps, which our county—Horry County—contested; they wanted the maps to make the county appear less flood prone. But after Florence, the county realized that the floodplain had changed and they couldn’t contest the mapping any longer. The county officially adopted the maps in 2022.
Q: What impacts have your community experienced as a result of repetitive flooding?
A: It’s an emotional shock, and a lot of people don’t get the mental health aspect. There’s a lot of trauma with flooding. You feel violated, because all your stuff is ripped apart, and you’re dependent upon a multitude of people to help you clean and put things back together.
We were a very strong community, built over 30 years; we were all longtime residents who owned our homes, and none of us ever anticipated moving or selling. But in the end, that’s what we did.
Q: And that was through a buyout program, right?
Q: We’ll come back to that in a minute. Can you say more about the impact on people’s mental and physical health in the community?
A: I’m not a scientist, but what I’m seeing is a lot of illness, cancer, and long-term suffering in the community. Having to navigate the relocation process, the emotional and physical stress, it was extremely hard.
Q: How has it been for you personally?
A: Even though I moved out of there, I’m still suffering. The PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is real.
Q: It was after Hurricane Matthew that you became a community advocate, right?
A: Right. I decided to speak about these things. Our community was devastated. It looked like a war zone. I co-founded Rosewood Strong, a grassroots organization, to get a response from authorities about our concerns.
Q: And you got results, including buyouts for you and many of your neighbors.
A: Yes. Two years ago, our county got more than $15 million in federal grants for flood mitigation activities. More than $13 million of that went to relocating repeat flood victims from Socastee. I just completed the relocation buyout program with 13 of my fellow residents.
Q: Are any flood victims still living in Socastee?
A: There’s about 1,000 to 1,200 properties left—people who don’t want to leave—and they don’t want to abide by the new codes and regulations that were instituted either. I worry about these people. They don’t necessarily understand what could possibly happen down the line.
Q: How many people did the program help?
A: Sixty total in Socastee. And they’re going to do 60 more, spread throughout the county.
Q: What was your approach to advocating?
A: I gave the state a run for their money, and then they finally brought in experts. Gov. McMaster told them to work with me, which was good, because experts need to be partners with residents—not make decisions for them. We know that rural areas often get overlooked, so there have to be representatives from the community who are going to stand up to officials and get rural and other residents the provisions that are rightfully theirs.
We visited local FEMA and county housing offices. We were always on the phone to state recovery officials. We showed up at town council and county council meetings. We were relentless.
Q: So how can policymakers and other officials help communities like Rosewood Estates create safer development and flooding mitigation plans?
A: They need to first help people in these communities understand the planning and development process and be more transparent. We have a right to know what’s going on; they’re spending our tax dollars.
But residents also don’t have the time to learn all the details. Why should they even have to? It would be like sitting down and trying to read IRS documents. And documents and applications need to be written in layman’s terms, and they need to be more accessible: A lot of people in our communities don’t even have internet access.
Q: Speaking of development and flooding, Horry County is built on forested wetlands, so taking down trees can increase the risk of flooding. How do you think communities should balance growth with flood risk?
A: Yes, we were largely a forested area, and we had a lot of land that was not developed. It was all wetlands and marshland. And naturally, you want developments and new communities. But their design—and the codes—must be up to par. One problem we’ve had in Horry County is that with the rapid growth, developers were all following outdated building codes. That’s been fixed now, so I think things should be better once they start building to the new, updated codes.
Q: In your experience, how important is it for community members to be involved?
A: People need to pay attention and go to town meetings. I know they’re a nuisance, and a lot of times it’s just you talking to the wind, but this is how project approvals work. People would see trees being cleared and buildings suddenly being built. And then they would say, “Oh, we gotta stop that development!” But by the time they start taking the trees down, you can’t stop it. It was decided on two years earlier, and no one was there to protest it.
Q: What about other flood mitigation efforts in your state?
A: The South Carolina Office of Resilience (SCOR) has been modified, upgraded, and is effective now, and I’m proof of that with my buyout. SCOR is now doing some great projects, including upgrading drainage systems, and they’ve been able to give out a lot more funding to communities.
Q: Did you find nonprofit organizations receptive to engaging with the affected communities?
A: I was disappointed. Some nonprofits can be very restrictive in terms of who they’ll direct disaster relief to. They’ll deny or give less if you’re gay or if you’re in a biracial relationship, or if you’re unwed with children. Others were great: quick, responsive, and understanding of people’s needs. They came into our communities, gave us supplies, and fed us three times a day.
Q: What’s your focus now, going forward?
A: I want to start a solar farm. I have almost an acre now. I would love to be able to provide my community with affordable utilities. Electricity is extremely expensive, and I know people who can’t afford electricity and go without it. Some of them have children; it breaks my heart.
This Q&A is part of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ “Local Resilience Champions” series—conversations with advocates from throughout the country about how flooding and environmental justice issues are affecting their region and how their efforts are improving outcomes for human and ecological communities. Anna Marandi of Pew spearheaded the discussion and outreach to identify this advocate and led the creation of this Q&A. Pew sends a special thank you to the Anthropocene Alliance (A2) network for connecting us with Terri Straka and Rosewood Strong. A2 is the nation’s largest coalition of frontline communities fighting for climate and environmental justice, with 140 member communities in 38 states and territories.
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